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Nicaraguan activists flee their country, but not the fight

Why We Wrote This

Activists leaving their countries to escape intimidation face a dilemma: Do they need to choose between their own safety and making a difference back home? Not necessarily, these Nicaraguans say.

Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters
People in San José, Costa Rica, rally in support of Nicaraguan protesters, who are opposing Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, on Aug. 11, at La Democracia Square. Some 200 Nicaraguans ask for asylum in Costa Rica every day, according to the United Nations.

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Clara’s first night in Costa Rica was spent in a makeshift shelter, sleeping on the floor next to 10 people she’d never met. All were Nicaraguan, and all were fleeing a government crackdown that has killed more than 400 people since April, when protests began over a proposed change to the country’s pension system. President Daniel Ortega was a Sandinista revolutionary who helped unseat dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. But today, after 11 years in office, his government has consolidated power and limited civil liberties. Since spring, violent attacks have subsided, but threats, arrests, and disappearances against people suspected of participating in the demonstrations have kicked up, keeping a steady flood of Nicaraguans, like Clara, leaving the country. But once they reach safety, many look for ways to contribute from afar: raising money and awareness, and helping those who have fled find their footing in foreign countries. “This is a fight I can’t leave behind,” says Clara, who is using a pseudonym for her family’s safety. “Everyone is contributing their grain of sand,” regardless of where they are.

Clara and Jorge met manning community-run barricades in Nicaragua last spring, at the onset of anti-government protests. They had fled bullets from armed forces and jumped from one safe-house to the next, but neither imagined that just three months later they’d find themselves sitting in a fluorescent-lit food court in neighboring Costa Rica, waiting for refugee work permits.

Today, nervously laughing and sipping cappuccinos together in the city-center, the friends are unsure if – or when – they can return home. President Daniel Ortega, a Sandinista revolutionary who helped unseat dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, is under fire for crackdowns on civilian protests in Nicaragua. Human rights organizations estimate more than 400 people have died since protests began in mid-April. The government puts the death toll closer to 200, and calls the demonstrators terrorists angling for a coup.

“This is a fight I can’t leave behind,” says Clara, who decided this month that “the only way to protect myself and protect my family was to leave.” She and Jorge are using pseudonyms for the safety of their families in Nicaragua.

“Everyone is contributing their grain of sand,” regardless of where they are, says Clara. “One person is defending your rights while the other is feeding you, and the other is housing you.” She spent her first night here in a makeshift shelter, sleeping on the floor alongside 10 Nicaraguans she’d never met.

Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled in recent months, continuing the exodus as violent attacks on street protests subside, and threats and disappearances kick up. Some 200 Nicaraguans ask for asylum in Costa Rica every day, according to the United Nations. Roughly 23,000 asylum interviews were scheduled in Costa Rica between April and Aug. 1. Others are fleeing to the United States, Panama, and Mexico.

Among the exiles are students, doctors, journalists, and others on government radar for their involvement – direct or tangential – in the protests. Today, they’re seeking ways to restore peace and build a more democratic country from beyond Nicaragua’s borders. That means countering misinformation, raising money and sending medical supplies back home, and helping those who have fled find their footing in foreign countries.

“We know that the most important work is still being done within Nicaragua,” says Julio Martínez Ellsberg, an adviser to the University Coalition for Democracy and Justice, the central student movement. He came to the US to visit family for a week in July, but his trip quickly snowballed into a month and counting after he did an on-air debate about the conflict with a US-based news outlet. Friends and family questioned whether he should return home right away; he’s now navigating his next move.

“There is some benefit” to having Nicaraguans involved in the anti-government protests abroad, he says. “The government is putting a lot of time and dedication into their international communications. They have a pretty solid strategy and they’ll say ‘This is all over. You can look away now,’ ” says Mr. Martinez, who is also part of the Platform for Social Movements, a coalition that came together after the crisis began.

Those who have left the country under threat or violent repression “are the first ones able to counter that,” he says.

Getting the word out

That’s certainly been the case in Costa Rica. Celso Cruz, a Nicaraguan who migrated to San Jose in the 1980s, has been lending a hand to recently arrived Nicaraguans like Jorge and Clara.

“These are really brave kids,” he says. “I’d like to have 10 percent of the bravery they have standing up to the government. They want a change in the country.”

This spring’s uprising erupted when a group of university students took to the streets to peacefully protest a proposed change to the nation’s pension system. Deadly repression of the protests spurred widespread calls for Mr. Ortega to step down after 11 years in office, during which time his government has cracked down on civil liberties and consolidated power. Although resistance organizers are emphasizing peaceful protests – whether via marches or neighborhood barricades – some individuals have armed themselves with weapons such as molotov cocktails.

Nicaraguans have a decades-long history of migrating south to Costa Rica, seeking sanctuary from repression, violence, and economic hardship. Today, it has a robust community of Nicaraguans, like Mr. Cruz, ready to support recent arrivals with shelter, food, and employment. A handful of groups thanked the Costa Rican government and citizens this week for their welcome and support.

Historically, the US has played this critical role in helping Latin American exiles raise awareness and funds for human rights crises in the region. The social movements fighting Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Somoza in Nicaragua made important inroads via nationals lecturing at US universities, or appealing to nongovernmental organizations in the United States, experts say.

“With the rejection of Temporary Protected Status [for Nicaraguans in 2017], and our restrictions on immigration, many won’t be able to get to the US and tap that as a way to reach US media and policymakers and inform US citizens as to what’s going on, or to gain resources,” says Christopher Sabatini, a Latin American specialist at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Some say scaring activists and students out of the country helps the government above all.

“There are a lot of collateral benefits for Ortega’s government [in that] the majority of people that leave oppose him,” says Roberto Solórzano, the president of Asociación Nicaragüense Pro Derechos Humanos, a human rights group. “It’s one less problem the government has to deal with” at home.

Mr. Solórzano left Nicaragua for a family matter earlier this month, but his staff has encouraged him to remain abroad. He and many colleagues in the US and Costa Rica continue to collect reports on protest-related deaths, relying on a network of volunteers to verify information on the ground.

“The international community has to find a way to stop this any way possible, and that’s only manageable with people working for this cause outside [of Nicaragua]. There’s no more blood to give,” he says.

For those still organizing and protesting inside Nicaragua, there’s a deep understanding of why others decide to leave.

“Many of our friends can’t leave home out of fear of imprisonment or being disappeared,” says Enrieth Martínez, a student leader still working in Nicaragua.

Collaborating with peers who have left the country is challenging because of the distance, but in many ways it’s the reality of organizing within Nicaragua, too, Ms. Martínez says. So many protesters are holed up in safe houses or are constantly moving to avoid being arrested or kidnapped that working remotely has become regular. A lot of organizing and information sharing is done via WhatsApp and other secure chat groups. After a collaborator, Irlanda Jerez, was taken following a press conference in July, student organizers now take precautions like recording statements in advance instead of holding events live.

“The work from afar is complicated, but we understand. We put the security of a person first,” says Martínez. But it’s “important that youth leaving Nicaragua keep fighting in other ways. We are the generation that can create a big change in our country. Our voice is vital for the future.”

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